Photo of ancient shield in pieces.

Enlarge / This is what the shield looked like after being excavated and conserved. (credit: Michael Bamforth)

When they found the shield, University of York archaeologists Michael Bamforth and his colleagues thought it must have been ceremonial, because surely bark couldn’t hold up against heavy iron-tipped spears and iron axes. After all, every other Iron Age shield archaeologists have found in Europe so far has been made of wood or metal. But it turned out that the tough, springy bark would have been perfectly capable of repelling arrows. Its lightness may even have made an Iron Age warrior more agile on the battlefield.

Welcome to the Iron Age; we’ve got swords and spears

By around 400 BCE, even small villages across Britain surrounded themselves with ditches, embankments, and palisades. At farmsteads scattered between villages, people grew wheat and barley or herded sheep and cattle. Local or regional chiefs ruled these farming tribes. No written sources tell us how often fighting broke out, or whether the bearer of this shield would’ve seen more action in cattle raids or in pitched combat, but the palisaded settlements hardly suggest a peaceful bucolic landscape.

“It is debatable how much fighting there would have been between these groups,” Bamforth told Ars Technica. “However, the Iron Age is a time of increasing personal wealth and power and one imagines that violence may have erupted over access to resources, trade, and all the other things that groups of people fight about today.”

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